You might not want to be tested for HIV. But the sooner you find out whether you have HIV, the better it is for your health. Test negative and you end any worries or doubt.
by Telford and Wrekin Sexual Health Services
Nowadays people can live long and healthy, happy lives with HIV but the best results are achieved by catching it early. This can be a challenge, because HIV can take years to cause any effects to a persons health so you can be HIV positive and not realise it. During this time, you could pass it on to other people too.
In Telford we actually have relatively few people living with HIV but this isn’t a reason to become complacent.
Across England, of all people diagnosed with HIV about 40 per cent are ‘late diagnoses’ which means they have lived for longer without treatment and are more likely to have both become unwell and have passed HIV on to other people during this time. In Telford about 39 per cent of HIV diagnoses are late diagnoses, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to reduce this even more.
So we want to do everything that we can to encourage people who are at high risk of catching HIV to be tested. Here’s our short guide to everything you need to know about HIV and why you should be tested.
What is HIV?
HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, which is our body’s natural defense against illness. The virus destroys a type of white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell, and makes copies of itself inside these cells. T-helper cells are also referred to as CD4 cells.
As HIV destroys more CD4 cells and makes more copies of itself, it gradually breaks down a person’s immune system. This means someone living with HIV, who is not receiving treatment, will find it harder and harder to fight off infections and diseases.
If HIV is left untreated, it may take up to 10 or 15 years for the immune system to be so severely damaged it can no longer defend itself at all. However, the speed HIV progresses will vary depending on age, health and background.
What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?
HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. If untreated, a person’s immune system will eventually be completely destroyed.
AIDS refers to a set of symptoms and illnesses that occur at the very final stage of HIV infection. AIDS itself is not what causes the harm to peoples health per se, it is the illnesses and infections that the person may acquire but that they cannot fight off that can leave someone very unwell.
Who is at higher risk of catching HIV?
Anyone can get HIV if they are sexually active, regardless of whether you’re gay or straight or where you come from—but HIV rates are higher among gay and bisexual men and African communities in the UK. Sometimes you will see that professionals use the term ‘men who have sex with men’ to describe a high risk group, out of respect for men who have sex with other men but do not consider themselves to be gay or bisexual.
Why do we need to focus so much on people getting tested?
The only way to find out if you have HIV is to have an HIV test, as symptoms of HIV may not appear for many years. A lot of people feel nervous about it, but the reasons to test far outweigh the reasons not to test.
If you do have HIV, being diagnosed at an early stage means that you have a better chance of living a long and healthy life. This is because HIV attacks your immune system. If you’re diagnosed early, you can start HIV treatment (antiretroviral drugs) earlier. This will lower the levels of HIV in your body, protect your immune system from damage, and stop you getting ill.
With the right treatment and care, people living with HIV can expect to live as long as the average person, so it’s important to take control of your health by getting a test.
Testing for HIV regularly, and knowing your status, means that you can look after the sexual health of your partners too. If you’re positive, you can prevent HIV from being transmitted to your partner by using condoms. Also, by starting and staying on antiretroviral treatment you will reduce the levels of HIV in your body, making it less likely you will pass HIV on.
Is HIV ‘a Death Sentence’?
In 2017, thanks to effective treatment, HIV can now be managed like lots of other long- term conditions. Many people take one tablet a day to be able to manage their condition. In 2015, an estimated 13 per cent of people living with HIV nationally were unaware of their infection and at risk of unknowingly passing on HIV if having sex without a condom.
We know that one in eight people living with HIV don’t know their status. An early diagnosis means a normal life expectancy. To ensure a decline of HIV across all communities, and increased early diagnoses, it’s vital that individuals feel empowered to be tested for HIV and know their status.
When should I be tested?
A test at least once a year is a good idea for people who have more than one sexual partner.
Testing at the start of a relationship as part of a full sexual health check-up also makes sense, especially if you plan on not using condoms.
After unprotected sex you should always take a STI test.
- Men who have sex with men are advised to have an HIV test at least once a year, or every three months if they’re having unprotected sex with new or casual partners.
- Black African men and women are advised to have an HIV test, and a regular HIV and STI screen, if they’re having unprotected sex with new or casual partners.
How do I get tested?
Testing is free and confidential, and any resident of Telford and Wrekin can order a free HIV self sampling kit from the It Starts with Me campaign site.
Your test will arrive by post – discreetly and designed to look like any other small package you might receive- and simply requires a small blood sample. This is what’s known as a ‘fingerprick test’ because you only have to slightly prick your finger using the kit provided. Most people hardly feel it. You can then free post it back, before you receive your result via text or email.
If something in your blood reacts, then you will be referred to a local clinic for a follow up test. Staff will be there to support you through the process
Alternatively, you can visit Telford and Wrekin’s sexual health service for a face to face testing at various sites throughout Telford and Wrekin.
If you would like further information on HIV, you can visit the Terrence Higgins Trust website or call their confidential helpline on 0808 802 1221.